Big Society raises parks fear

Green space experts have expressed caution at prime minister David Cameron's "Big Society" plan, which will give local people a greater say in local services.

Parks professionals said the initiative could be a disaster if parks and playing fields are given away. CABE director Sarah Gaventa said: "Most parks are already working closely with friends groups. But there is scope for improvement."

She pointed out that local authority-owned land around homes, clinics and council offices was often poorly used. Similarly, many social housing providers have green spaces and play areas that are virtually unused. She suggested local partnerships with tenants groups could revive these spaces.

Gaventa added that corporate volunteering could be a big factor. But she stressed that council involvement was vital: "Councils can offer skills and expertise. We're concerned that some community groups might run parks for just one sector of society."

She remarked that Cameron had only talked about older volunteers who have time on their hands. "We have got to find a role for younger people," she insisted. There are genuine fears that local authorities might be tempted to give away land. "Once you give it away, you can't get it back," Gaventa warned.

Oldham parks head Steve Smith agreed that councils should remain in control. "We recently had one group that took over a piece of land. It worked well for a few years, but now the management has been split by disagreements and the land is now overgrown and filled with burnt out cars. Unless councils retain ultimate control, it can be a disaster."

But parks consultant Sid Sullivan said: "This will help bring in volunteers and people who want to get work experience."

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